RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Kids Need to Learn About Big Ag

The farthest back that we humans can remember is about ten years after our own births. That’s about when consciousness kicks in, for better or worse. It takes about ten more years before we figure out that we’re not the centers of the universe and even longer to develop awareness that our actions affect others.

So it’s up to the elders to teach the kids that what we do matters and to learn from what was done in the past. This obligation came on me hard the other day when I was talking to a group of twenty-somethings about the latest biotech crops, which will be made impervious to 2,4 D. 2,4 D is a major component of Agent Orange. Agent Orange? The kids had no clue. Vietnam, I said. And relief crossed their faces. They had heard of Vietnam. Help. We need Hollywood.

The fever surrounding the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic has broken, and the producers should be looking for another story with the mixture of romance, hubris and threat that they built into the sinking of a great American ship. Here’s one: genetic engineering. Pick any crop — corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa. They’ve all had the GMO treatment and they have the potential of killing us by the boatloads while the band plays on. And, unlike the Titanic, which sank without leaving a ripple on the ocean’s surface, transgenic crops have changed the very nature of life on earth.

Come on, Hollywood, pick up the story. The blockbuster could open in a humble corporate laboratory, where some beleaguered fictional scientist is trying to come up with a patent. Maybe there’s been a crop failure due to weeds (this is hard to imagine because weeds have never created crop failure, but that’s the kind of fiction a film can make) and our hero wants to save the world, so he’s working on a way to make soybeans impermeable to applications of an herbicide that can kill weeds but leave the crop intact. He labors day and night, his lab coat graying over the years, depriving himself of sleep and love, to save humanity until, voila. He’s got the formula. Just put these few genes into this plant and it’s going to resist the herbicide that kills all the weeds.

In the meantime, his dedication has caught the eye of the young secretary in the front office with the brother battling cancer. Let’s say he got it from Agent Orange, one of the many cancers the VA has identified from that toxic mix. We can have some footage of Vietnam, the jungles hiding those mean-spirited communists that want to take over the world.

Hollywood can come up with a way to kill an hour or so with wars and romance as the boring stuff happens behind the scene — you know, boring like farmers plant the crop, spray it with Roundup, it grows, consumers eat it. It’s cheap. But here’s an irony that puts the scientist, now gray-haired, into despair. His crops don’t go to feed those starving folks suffering from the weed epidemic, but to make high-fructose corn syrup, fat cattle in feedlots and hogs in confinement. Stuff we don’t want to see on the big screen.

Now, as the lowly scientist and his bride are working through the brother’s cancer cure, the weeds are sneaking around changing their very nature so they can become resistant to the Roundup. The poor farmers spray more and more, but to no avail. Not only do these weeds steal nutrients, which farmers are applying by the boatload to their exhausted soil, but the weeds, powered by the fertilizer, grow to the size of trees in a year. The mega-weeds thoroughly screw up the corporate plan, which invents machinery to efficiently harvest but doesn’t take into account the hours lost when the machines run stupidly into baseball-bat sized stalks that jam up the works. A $100,000 Ford combine collapses in a cloud of dust. A $200,000 John Deere explodes, parts flying all over the fields. Hoods. Tubes. Springs. Screens. Propelled in air and on fire even. This flick could be in 3-D.

As the old guy sees his life work end in failure, a younger scientist appears on the scene. The humble lab is now a gleaming computerized wonder and the kid’s learned at the university that the only way to solve the problem that science has caused is with more science—a new biotech, crops resistant to a new kind of chemical. Something cheap, so farmers can apply it time and again—out, darn weeds.

Ironically, the very chemical he stumbles on is the major component of Agent Orange. The old guy rolls out the list of problems—cancers, endocrine disruption—and the kid, enlightened, looks for a better way. “The definition of insanity,” says the old guy, “is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result,” and the young scientist nods respectfully.

The old guy regains his dignity, the earth is saved. The credits roll.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2012

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